For many years Jack Ives has nursed the idea of bringing together under one cover an account of his friendship with Ragnar Stefánsson, an Icelandic sheep farmer, and his family.
He met Ragnar in 1952 on the first of many visits to Skaftafell. As an English undergraduate student, he was overwhelmed both by the grandeur and remoteness of the landscape and, by the culture and history of the farmers of the area.
It was through his interest in Iceland that he met Pauline, his wife of more than fifty years and, a year later, experienced the trauma of losing two of his closest friends in the ice fields of Öræfajökull. But with the passage of time and numerous return visits, another equally important understanding captured his intellect and emotions.
He witnessed the conversion of a remarkable isolated and austerely beautiful landscape into a national park together with the transformation of the people and their ways of life. Indeed, Skaftafell has become one of the primary destinations for the increasing number of visitors to Iceland as well as for Icelanders. Because Jack’s career has taken him into many outstanding mountain regions throughout the world, he came to recognize the global significance of Skaftafell’s natural and cultural heritage. Therefore, it is not over-presumptuous to attempt to demonstrate this vital importance. Sometimes the impressions of a visitor can provide a useful and complementary perspective to those of native-born Icelanders.
The book is subdivided into three parts supplemented by eleven appendices. The first part attempts to explain Ragnar’s own sense of time and place and his relationship with his local and wider region. To do this, it is necessary to go back to Ingólfur Arnason’s first landfall in AD 874 under the headland that bears his name, Ingólfshöfði, which could be seen by Ragnar from his farmhouse.
In working through the centuries, using the somewhat unconventional approach to assume perceptions and attitudes of a number of principal characters, some possibly mythical, others startlingly real, the author eventually reaches 1952, the date of his own first arrival. At this point, he moves to the second part.
This is a narrative of the University of Nottingham student expeditions of 1952–1954, including a detailed account of the fatal accident of August 1953. It also outlines some of the results of their research. It is recounted at some length because it demonstrates how Jack came to be bound to Ragnar and Skaftafell. It is also an example of the influence of Iceland and Icelanders on the lives of visitors from overseas.
The third part is an account of the second half of Ragnar’s life that is inseparably linked with the origins and evolution of the Skaftafell National Park leading to the author’s presumption of eventual World Heritage recognition. He uses his own extensive experience with UNESCO, the United Nations University, the World Conservation Union (IUCN), as well as his university teaching and mountain research career, to illustrate the many challenges and opportunities that development of the park entails.
The final section is a collection of eleven appendices that provide greater detail for those interested in such topics as seal hunting, jökulhlaup, glacier movement, mountaineering, the history of Skaftafell, and aspects of the Nottingham student expeditions.